The Case for Decriminalizing Drugs

Eddy Zhang, Commentary Editor

In the United States, the same negative effects of the prohibition of alcohol can be seen today with the prohibition of drugs overall. Instead of treating drug abuse as a medical issue, we have collectively decided to treat it as a criminal issue. And this criminal approach, our so-called “war on drugs,” has not only utterly failed in reducing the harms of drug use, but it has actually magnified them. What I will argue in the following article is that the federal government should decriminalize all drug use in the United States. 

Specifically, I am arguing that we should remove the criminal and coercive penalties associated with drug use — not remove penalties associated with the drug trade or any other conduct that goes beyond simple possession or use; there exists practical and moral distinctions between the two. In other words, conduct such as the production of drugs, trafficking, selling, driving under the influence and other activities in those same veins should be tightly controlled by the state, with punitive measures if need be. Use and possession, however, should be treated under a medical lens, not a criminal one. 

Those reading this article will likely grimace at the prospect of such an idea, but I ask those reacting negatively to suspend their disbelief for a moment and consider the following arguments carefully. 

There is both a moral and practical argument for decriminalization. From a moral perspective, the case for doing so is simple: it is up to the individual to decide what they want to consume. Possession and use affects no one else except the user themself. For those who disagree and feel that they have both the right and competence to dictate how others live, the following practical arguments may persuade them instead. 

Decriminalizing all drugs would allow the government to shift resources from policing and housing drug users to actually treating and caring for them. Many drug users, who are not harming anyone, have their lives destroyed by being turned into criminals. Who believes that throwing these users into prison actually helps them? 

Moreover, many ailing addicts who are afraid, either out of fear of social stigmatization or criminal penalty, can seek the medical treatment they need with decriminalization. People wrongly convicted for simple possession or use would be freed. Even more people, who have served their time but are still shackled by criminal records associated with such charges, would finally have the opportunity to start anew. 

Some of the greatest social harms tied to drug use are not due to the use itself, but actually because of the criminal penalty. The penalties associated with drug use increase the cost of drugs drastically, allowing organized crime to profit. Those who are addicted often turn to crime in order to fund their addiction, and they have to turn to crime because of the cost premium associated with it being a criminal activity. From a purely economical point of view, the ones who benefit the most from illegalization are those producing, trafficking and distributing the drugs. And the ones who are harmed the most are the users. 

My thinking here is not exactly original. There is strong existing empirical evidence to support the validity of these arguments, with the prime case study being Portugal’s stance on drugs. In 2001, Portugal decriminalized all drugs, including heroin and cocaine. And to the dismay of some fearmongers, Portugal did not become a drug-addled cesspool of crime; the very opposite occurred in reality. 

When it comes to absolute drug use, according to a white paper by the Cato Institute, rates have declined slightly or stayed roughly the same across most drug categories. Negative phenomena associated with drug use, such as overdoses, deaths and the spread of HIV all declined significantly following decriminalization. What did increase significantly was the number of those who opted to seek treatment and help with their drug issues. 

And today, according to the American Psychological Association, Portugal has the lowest drug-related death rate in Western Europe; their drug mortality rate is about 10 percent of the United States’ death rate. Heroin use also plummeted, with the number of heroin users in Portugal dropping from 100,000 prior to the passage of the law to 25,000 today; the number of HIV diagnoses due to drug injection has fallen by more than 90 percent. 

How many people could we help today if we removed the criminal stigma associated with drug use? How many would see their lives turn around if harmless use and possession convictions were purged? How many lives could be saved if we started treating those suffering as human beings instead of criminals? These are questions we should all ask of ourselves when we consider what is at stake in this great debate. 

Ask yourself: do you really believe our currently militant approach to drug use works?